Before she took the stage Thursday morning, Mary Lou Retton and a school gym filled with teenage girls at St. Joseph’s Academy in Baton Rouge looked up at a big screen and watched Retton — 34 years ago — come from behind to win the all-around gold medal in gymnastics at the 1984 Summer Olympics.
At the time, Retton was just 16 years old, the same age as many of the students at St. Joseph’s. They relived the day when Retton made history, scoring perfect 10s on the floor exercise and vault to edge out her rival, Romanian gymnast Ecaterina Szabo.
“People ask me all the time, ‘Mary Lou, do you ever get tired of watching that?’ My honest answer? `No,'” Retton laughed.
Retton is now 50, but is still recognizably the 4’ 9’’ dynamo from Fairmont, West Virginia, who for a time was known as “America’s Sweetheart.” She has four daughters; one, McKenna Kelley, a gymnast at LSU, was on hand Thursday for her mother’s talk and also helped field questions from students.
Retton recently returned to the public eye when she competed on “Dancing With The Stars.” Her appearance at the school was connected with one of her main jobs these days, working as a motivational speaker. She spoke as part of a speaker series coinciding with St. Joseph’s Academy’s 150th anniversary.
Looking at the big screen, Retton said her moment of triumph almost didn’t happen.
“I wasn’t supposed to be there,” she said. “I wasn’t supposed to do that.”
Two months earlier, she had injured her knee. She was doing her last practice routine after eight hours of practice when her knee locked and she couldn’t get up. She learned the next day that she’d have to have surgery. She recalls her shock.
“I'm going to the Olympics, something I had dreamed about since I was 7 years old every single night,” Retton said. “And this doctor’s saying I have to have surgery?”
She immediately underwent surgery and in less than six weeks not only recovered but returned in Olympic-level shape. She said her doctors were dubious. One even suggested she go back home to West Virginia and wait for the next Olympics.
“Something inside of me moved and surged and said, `Nobody is going to tell me what I could or couldn’t do.' I had made it this far,” she recalled. “Nobody was going to put a limit on me.”
After a grueling and accelerated recovery, Retton said she arrived in Los Angeles and “I was ready.”
After her remarks at the school, Anna Virginia Broyles, a ninth-grader at St. Joseph’s Academy, said she found Retton’s story inspiring and didn’t realize what she was up against.
“I was surprised when she said she had her surgery, that it was just six weeks before the Olympics,” Broyles marveled.
The first woman to appear on a Wheaties cereal box clearly still gets a charge from winning the gold medal. She recalled her rival Szabo was ahead after Szabo finished her last routine.
“She’s waving into the crowd thinking she won, blowing kisses. She really was!” said Retton, chuckling at the memory.
But Retton had her last vault still to do. She could win, lose or tie, depending on how well she did, with a perfect 10 the only way to win. She wanted the top of the podium to herself.
“I’m not a good role model on sharing,” she said, laughing. “And, boy, I did not want to share that gold medal with her. I wanted her down there on No. 2 where she was supposed to be.”
She attributes her triumph to “preparation, preparation, preparation."
“You know when you’re prepared,” she said. “All I had to do is what I had done a thousand times.”
Several times during her talk, Retton stressed to the students the importance of seizing opportunities and getting out their “comfort zones.”
“When you see your door of opportunity looking at you smack in the face, girls go through it, don’t walk through, run through it,” Retton implored. “Why? Because we don’t know if that door is ever going to appear again.”
How do we get the courage to do that, she asked? “It’s preparation, preparation, preparation.”
One student asked Retton how to win if “you keep getting second place for things.”
“Let me ask you do you believe up here,” Retton pointed at her head, “that you’re a winner?”
“I think I’m a winner,” the student responded.
“It’s the confidence of knowing you’re a winner, that you’re going to be a winner,” Retton said. “And I promise you that gold medal, that blue ribbon is coming quick. It will, because you just keep at it, just keep pushing, pushing, pushing.”